The bearer of evil tidings
When he was halfway there
Remembered that evil tidings
Are a dangerous thing to bear.
And as for the evil tidings
Why hasten to tell Belshazzar
What Belshazzar soon will know?
– Robert Frost
Most of us play a game with the unpleasantnesses of history: If only this, or if only that, terrible consequences might have been avoided. Sometimes I muse that if a few clever people simply had kept their mouths shut, the world might have been a better place.
The old Viennese cafe quip (quoted by Paul Johnson in his History of the Jews) comes to mind: “Anti-Semitism wasn’t getting anywhere until the Jews got behind it.” Nietzsche and Wagner came to embrace paganism through the works of the Jewish poet and critic Heinrich Heine. Nietzsche gave Heine full credit for the discovery that Christianity formed a thin veneer over Germany’s pagan religion. Wagner stole the story for his first Wagnerian opera, “The Flying Dutchman,” from Heine. Heine should have listened to his mother and become a banker.
There is nothing wrong with this sort of daydreaming, unless, of course, one becomes obsessed by it. The elites of the West have spent the past 88 years obsessed with the outbreak of World War I. Put me in a time machine and take me back to July 1914, they mutter to themselves, and I will save the world from all the evils of the 20th century. One searches through the languages of the world for an expression sufficiently dismissive.
Ni modo, say the Mexicans.
Es soll gor nicht helfen, say the Jews.
Fuhgeddiboudit, say the Brooklynites.
If only, if only. It really doesn’t matter whether the bearer of evil tidings arrives in time or not. The tragedies of history are tragedies in the precise sense of the term, that is, a disastrous event caused by an incurable tragic flaw. The flaws of a culture and of its leaders bring about its ruin, Thucydides explained in his Peloponnesian Wars two and a half millennia ago.
Napoleon was master of Europe when he invaded Russia and lost everything. What made him master of Europe, however, was the fact that every young man of ambition flocked to his banner. To keep his army intact he had to keep conquering, and Russia was the only big unconquered country available. In fact, the bearer of evil tidings already had arrived 16 years earlier, and was known to every educated European: I refer to Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy of 1798, depicting the Imperial Generalissimo of the 30 Years’ War as the captive of the army, his own creation. “Am I a Napoleon, or a Mohammed?” murmurs Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
If only the diplomats of Europe had found a solution to the crisis of July 1914, Western civilization might not have come to ruin in two world wars. All the political science, diplomacy, and historifying of the Western elites has played this monotone for three generations. Of course, nothing could have prevented the war. It was a tribute to the skill of the diplomats that the war took so long to break out. Men will die to preserve their culture. Culture is what makes one generation intelligible to the next. In the popular mind, as T S Eliot observed, it is indistinguishable from religion. Suppose, I have written before, that you knew that your culture would disappear, and that no one who came after, not your children nor anyone else’s, would speak your language, sing your songs, hope your hopes, or comprehend your concerns? What would be the meaning of your life?
Endangered cultures take desperate measures. The Slavs of the former Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century faced such a danger. Weakened by centuries of oppression, they faced absorption into the German culture which had contended with the Slavs for centuries. The Russians, with their Dostoyevskyan Messianism, fed by a smoldering sense of inferiority, embraced the Slavic cause. A civilizational clash with German-speaking Europe could not be avoided. The German general staff argued that Russia might become undefeatable after one more generation of industrializing and railroad-building. It was in Germany’s interest to settle accounts as soon as possible. Of course, if Germany and Austria fought Russia alone in 1914, they would have emerged as undefeatable powers. The French, long in decline, had one last chance to reassert their own decaying culture against Germany. The common people of no country welcomed war so ecstatically as the French, nor gave of their manhood so generously. One of every 10 Frenchman of military age died in the war.
No more than Pericles, Wallenstein or Napoleon could the European powers of 1914 avoid catastrophe. Like the Protestant and Catholic powers in Germany of the 17th century, the Allies and Central Powers were evenly matched, so that the war could end only with the ruin of both sides.
Which brings me to why no one should read this essay. If you have come this far, please hit the Back button now.
Iraq’s nuclear program is the 21st century equivalent of Russia’s railroads in 1914. The United States must prevent Saddam Hussein from building nuclear weapons now, or the cost of stopping him (and others in the future) will be incalculable. The trouble is that today’s Arabs (and to a great extent other Islamic populations) are in the position of the Slavs of 1914. They are an endangered culture, and like many endangered cultures, the extremists among them will take desperate measures.
No more than in 1914 can the diplomats avert a tragedy. No more than in 1914 does any important participant desire a tragedy. The elite of Europe and America’s East Coast somnambulistically reenacts the first days of August 1914, wailing out warnings like a tragic chorus. The American administration believes it will bring democracy to the Mideast, and plows ahead like a tragic hero. The tragedy will proceed. Unlike 1914, of course, the two sides are not equally matched. America outweighs its prospective adversaries by an order of magnitude. Yet its potential adversaries are so numerous and so bereft of hope that the tragedy will not play itself out in four terrible years. It well may last for 40.